Turns out, you don’t even need to be laughing for real. Fake laughter can help reduce stress and improve immunity just as well
Whether you’re chuckling at a funny meme, in splits over an inside joke or just hit with a fit of giggles—laughing, in all its forms, is a massive boost to general health. Considered the best medicine, laughter is said to improve immunity, reduce stress and heal the body. “Laughter is a non behaviour that we inherited from the great apes. It has been conserved across species and within our own human history for a very important reason,” says Sujata Kelkar Shetty, biological scientist and author of 99 Not Out. “Laughing lifts our spirits, connects us with people and heals us in the process,” she explains.
The facial muscles you use when you laugh, cry or frown are hardwired to the brain’s emotion centres. When you laugh, the happy centres of the brain light up, triggering the release of endorphins that reduce the severity of pain. “Endorphins kick in when we laugh, and we can feel the lift in mood almost immediately. We don’t really need convincing; we intuitively know the healing effects of laughter. The endorphins are the body’s natural pain killers,” says Shetty. In fact, according to many studies, those who laughed at a funny video or a joke had significantly higher pain threshold than those who didn’t.
“Research shows us that laughter boosts our immune system's ability to fight infection, improves memory in older adults and works as well as exercise in the treatment of depression,” she says. Dopamine production promotes the action of the NK cells (Natural Killer cells), which are the body’s main defence to disease. Positive thoughts actually release neuropeptides that can improve overall immunity.
While endorphins are upping your pain threshold, they also promote the secretion of dopamine. This happy hormone lowers anxiety and stress, and makes you feel better. “Laughing reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our body, making it an excellent stress management tool,” confirms Shetty. Laughter, especially the really rollicking kind, can stimulate the heart and lungs as well. “It expands the lungs, thus giving our cells more oxygen—just as exercise would,” she says. This causes the blood pressure to fall, relaxing the entire body in the process.
It looks like even the fake laugh for a good Instagram picture works as well as a real one. “The body can’t distinguish between fake and real laughter. It interprets the positioning of the facial muscles as if you were really laughing. And even though some popular laughter yoga classes begin with ‘fake’ or pretend laughter exercises, people start to genuinely chuckle very soon. “There is something about watching someone laugh that is socially contagious,” says Shetty. She suggests spending more time with friends and family you can laugh with, as well as watching, reading and listening to funny content regularly.